Saying that Charlie Haden's Rambling Boy is a personal album is an understatement. In essence, this album is a tribute to his mother and father whose own vocal group -- made up of Haden and his siblings -- performed on radio programs in both Shenandoah, IA and Springfield, MO, where they hosted the live variety show Korn's-A-Krackin (sic), which was modeled on the Grand Ole Opry. Haden began his musical career at the age of two, singing live on the radio; he was fortunate enough to have Mother Maybelle Carter play in his living room, and to have met the rest of the Carters, Porter Wagoner, Chet Atkins, and numerous others on their way through town to play the show.
This 19-song set features all the members of his immediate family -- daughters Petra, Rachel, and Tanya, as well as son Josh. The players and vocalists are numerous but they include guitarist Pat Metheny, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, the Whites, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Elvis Costello, and Russ Barenberg, among others. Despite the wide range of players here, this album can only be called Americana in the strictest sense of the term as its selections are new readings of mostly traditional folk and country songs. There are numerous connections interwoven here too: highlights include Cash's moving and plaintive reading of "Wildwood Flower," a song that has roots in her own family -- via Mother Maybelle -- and Haden's, as well, as his mother had it in her repertoire. Metheny's and John Leventhal's guitars are devastatingly beautiful here. Another stellar moment is Josh's reading of his own song "Spiritual." Johnny Cash previously recorded it, as did Charlie and Metheny on the Grammy-winning Beyond the Missouri Sky. Josh's voice has none of the earth-shaking, end-of-the-world authority of Cash's, but it doesn't need to. In his voice the song is a prayer that exposes the most vulnerable of emotions: loneliness, fear, and remorse. When underscored by Douglas' dobro, Duncan's fiddle, and Barenberg's poignant guitar, it is a devastatingly powerful -- if gentle -- tune. Petra's version of "The Fields of Athenry," with the dual guitars of Metheny and Barenberg, and Hornsby's piano, is a real showstopper as well, but for different reasons. The song unfolds in a plaintive vocal as a story from time immemorial. Yet the instrumental accompaniment (which also includes a smoking dobro solo by Douglas) transforms it into something that extends far into the future. The Louvin Brothers' "Seven Year Blues" is sung in innovative three-part harmony by the Haden girls (triplets), and Rachel's read of "Tramp on the Street" could have been written for her by Grady and Hazel M. Cole; it possesses all the weariness and conviction of a Clinch Mountain church song. Jack Black (he's married to Tanya) does a humorous yet very effective take on the traditional "Old Joe Clark" yet it is utterly convincing. Metheny's instrumental "Is This America (Katrina 2005)," reminds us why he's such an iconic musician -- it's not for his flash, which he possesses in abundance, but his subtlety and melodic elegance. Costello, with his jazzy phrasing, does a very modern take on Hank Williams' "You Win Again," bringing it into the present. Haden sings "Oh Shenandoah," in his reedy, wispy, 71-year-old voice and bass as Metheny, Duncan, Douglas, and Barenberg accompany him; he nearly whispers this beautifully idiosyncratic set to a close, leaving the intertwined circles of bloodlines and musical heritage unbroken.